As rapid urbanization intensifies around the world, so do contestations over how city space is utilized and for whose benefit urban revitalization is undertaken. The most prominent sites of this contestation are efforts by city residents to claim important urban goods—open squares, parks, abandoned or underutilized buildings, vacant lots, cultural institutions, streets and other urban infrastructure—as collective, or shared, resources of urban communities. The assertion of a common stake or interest in resources shared with others is a way of resisting the privatization and/or commodification of these resources. We situate these claims within an emerging “urban commons” framework embraced by progressive reformers and scholars across multiple disciplines. The urban commons framework has the potential to provide a discourse, and set of tools, for the development of revitalized and inclusive cities. Yet, scholars have failed to fully develop the concept of the “urban commons,” limiting its utility to policymakers.
In this Article, we offer a pluralistic account of the urban commons, including the idea of the city itself as a commons. We find that, as a descriptive matter, the characteristics of some shared urban resources mimic open-access, depletable resources that require a governance or management regime to protect them in a congested and rivalrous urban environment. For other kinds of resources in dispute, the language and framework of the commons operates as a normative claim to open up access of an otherwise closed or limited access good. This latter claim resonates with the social obligation norm in property law identified by progressive property scholars and reflected in some doctrines that recognize that private ownership rights must sometimes yield to the common good or community interest.
Ultimately, however, the urban commons framework is more than a legal tool to make proprietary claims on particular urban goods and resources. Rather, we argue that the utility of the commons framework is to raise the question of how best to manage, or govern, shared or common resources. The literature on the commons suggests alternatives beyond privatization of common resources or monopolistic public regulatory control over them. We propose that the collaborative and polycentric governance strategies already being employed to manage some natural and urban common resources can be scaled up to the city level to guide decisions about how city space and common goods are used, who has access to them, and how they are shared among a diverse population. We explore what it might look like to manage the city as a commons by describing two evolving models of what we call “urban collaborative governance”: the sharing city and the collaborative city.